My new documentary for BBC Radio 4, Expressing Pain, will be broadcast on Monday 19th November at 4.00pm.

Physical pain is one of the most important symptoms for a doctor and patient to discuss, but often pain can be difficult to express using words alone. It’s even more challenging in the context of a busy consultation room, and can often leave the patient feeling frustrated they haven’t been properly understood.

As a doctor I can understand those frustrations, as often I feel my questions about pain don’t really get to what the patient is actually experiencing. Chronic pain in particular is a complex condition with both physical and psychological components that require specialist input from a multi-disciplinary team.

So I wanted to find out if there are other ways of opening up the discussion about chronic pain – what can classical and modern art teach us about the experience of living with pain? Art Therapy is used in many disciplines, but could it be that photography, paintings and poetry can start a new type of communication between patient and doctor?

My aim wasn’t to change my prescribing or management plans for patients in pain – both of those should reflect evidence based therapies. But I did want to understand if art can add to the limited vocabulary we use for pain. Can a photograph of an ice cold foot help chronic pain patients to say more about their experiences than their own words and thoughts? Can poetry inspired by Frieda Kahlo give me a more holistic view of someone who lives with pain?

Over the course of 3 months, I met artists, poets, critics and specialists, all of whom had an opinion on what life with chronic pain can mean. The critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston showed me some of the startling and original artworks which dare to tackle which pain looks like, such as Munch’s The Scream, and the grotesque works of Francisco de Goya, later re-interpreted by The Chapman Brothers. Poet Pascale Petit discussed her collection What the Water Gave Me, poems inspired by the works of Frieda Kahlo, the Mexican artist who spent much of adult life in chronic pain. Pain Specialist Dr Charles Pither and the photographer & artist Deborah Padfield told me of their work in a Chronic Pain Unit, using stark images to create new ways of discussing pain between doctor and patient. Not everyone wants a doctor overflowing with empathy for their patients, though. The author AL Kennedy wrote a Guardian column challenging the myth of the suffering artist, and believes that a doctor should distance themselves from their patients’ symptoms.

I feel art and medicine are often intertwined – our experiences of symptoms aren’t merely focussed on the physical dimension, but invariably overlap into our psychological and emotional outlook too. Medicine can neglect to explore these attributes, and I think that art can help us bridge the gap in communication when we focus on pain. My most privileged experience in making this programme was meeting James, a chronic pain sufferer, who allowed me a new insight into how a good doctor should communicate with their patients. His photographs, highlighting the lonelinesss, isolation and sense of powerlessness that pain can impact upon a life, made me realise that listening to my patients isn’t just about hearing what they say, but about finding out what they mean, too.


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